The Cyborg Conservationist

Haze from the 2015 forest fires in Southeast Asia may have killed about 100,000 people. It was also really bad for wildlife. Benjamin Lee and colleagues recently showed these effects by measuring acoustic activity on an ‘eco-overpass’ between two areas of forest in Singapore before, during and after the haze event. The data showed that acoustic activity dropped by 37% during the haze, and had showed only partial recovery 16 weeks later.

I learned of this research through the excellent BBC World Service Inside Science Programme on 12 October 2017. What caught my attention was the serendipitous nature of the study. Lee was supposed to be surveying bats to assess the effects of the overpass. But the haze triggered his asthma, and he had to stop work: but his acoustic recorders stayed in place. And hence a dataset was collected that spanned the haze event, recording not just bats but also birds and insects, and showing how they were silenced by the conditions.

This neat paper highlights the extraordinary power of remote devices to record biological data. Digital acoustic recording is widely used to survey bats (e.g. the iBats programme) and increasingly birds and insects. Moreover, archived sound recordings made for one purpose can be mined later for another. Citizen science recordings of bats in the UK have been used to identity stridulating bush-crickets.

Digital audio sensors are remarkable. They can collect data continuously with only intermittent action by an operator. Bad weather, hostile terrain, or unreasonable hours (night work, weekend or Bank Holidays) are no problem. The resulting data stream is vast, but algorithms can be used to automate pattern recognition. Acoustic or ‘soundscape’ ecology offers considerable potential efficiencies over traditional field survey methods, for example an increase in the number of bird species identified by 87% in one Australian study. And it saves on field surveyor time.

Furthermore, sound can be recorded and analyzed far beyond the range of human hearing (e.g. the ultrasonic time expansion detectors used by iBat surveyors). Sonic surveillance can also be conducted underwater (e.g. passive acoustic tracking of migrating humpback whales, the sound of a coral reef, or the noise pollution around the UK coast).

It is not just acoustic technologies that enable sensing beyond normal human capacity. Tracking devices attached to individual animals have achieved remarkable levels of sophistication. They have shrunk in size and weight and have massively improved battery life. Satellite tags can be fitted to medium sized birds such as the male cuckoos tagged by the British Trust for Ornithology.   Geolocators (which record light levels and time, allowing latitude and longitude to be calculated) have also miniaturized. They were once devices suitable only for very large birds such as the albatrosses, but in 2016 the RSPB and BTO fitted geolocators weighting only 0.36g to Dartmoor wood warblers (which weigh only 100g), and tracked them on migration to Africa and back. Digital data on animal movement is flooding in from research and conservation projects (sponsors love it!), and more and more is available for analysis in open-access archives such as Movebank.

And it is not just animals – since Landsat launched in the early 1970s, multispectral scanning from space and from the air has become sophisticated and effective in mapping life on the earth’s surface. You can see penguin poo and whales from space, and using radar you can map forest canopies and estimate above ground carbon using radar (LiDAR). Similarly, developments in sonar technology have revolutionized oceanic biology (as well, unfortunately, as making fish easier to catch).

So here’s the problem – I love this stuff. Embarrassingly for a technophobe (have you read Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove? Suffice it to say Ove is younger than me), I get very excited by new conservation tech. For me the allure of ecology lies in understanding the species and processes going on that you can’t see. Part of me is still the kid about to plunge a net into the unknown below the silver surface of a pond.

But (and I know you are expecting a but), the capability of conservation technology worries me a bit. Let my try to explain why.

Digital devices that extend our ability to sense nature change us, both in the way we think and the ways we act. In his book Wildlife in the Anthropocene, Oxford Geographer Jamie Lorimer, talks about such technologies as ‘prosthetic devices’. They extend human capabilities, make up for our poor hearing, limited sight and poor sense of smell. We might add that they suit our ambition and impatience, our desire to know everything in the natural world and our compulsion to spend as little money and time doing it was we can. They are prosthetic devices that make us more efficient – or at least that make us more knowledgeable more efficiently.

I would go further. I think digital sensors are making us conservation cyborgs, part machine and part organism. I believe we are moving so far into machine-sensing that we are not only becoming dependent on our prosthetics, but we are increasingly conditioned by their representation of the world.

In her 1984 essay A Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway argued that formerly rigid boundaries between categories were breaking down – between human and animal, and between life and machine. This had profound implications for the way we think, and for human relations with other forms of life. The cyborg, she wrote, ‘would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust’ (p. 293).

Donna Haraway’s focus was feminism, but in the last three decades her cyborg metaphor has stalked the Humanities in many guises. It has also repeatedly surfaced in popular culture, as a core motif of cyberpunk (e.g. the 1987 film Robocop, its 2014 remake, or the 2017 version of Ghost in the Shell). These films turn on the cyborg’s retention of an innate humanity inside its machine-like body. The super-powers of the machine are irrelevant: what matters is the moral mind within. Cyborgs (from the Tin Man onwards) are classically unable to touch or be touched, to feel or show emotion. Even super-engineer Tony Stark in Iron Man (2008), is emotionally formulaic underneath his weaponized suit.

Is there not a risk of an extinction of experience, if we start to interact as conservation professionals with non-human life primarily through digital devices? If conservation’s interactions with nature are mediated by technology, might the actual and the virtual start to merge? In Places of the Heart, Colin Ellard asks hard questions about virtual reality in the context of our ability to sense nature. The risk, he says is that ‘the machine becomes the world’. Film again provides a case study in the all-powerful virtual world of The Matrix.

Digital technology provides rich flows of data, but they are all mediated by the interface, portrayed through the machine. Such mediation is not neutral.   As Marshall McLuhan argued in The Gutenberg Galaxy in 1962, communication technology shapes the way we think, with profound effects on social organization. This is what technology does. As Sheila Jasanoff’s work on socio-technical imaginaries makes clear, technology shapes scientific and social order in complex ways. Conservation is no exception.

So digital technologies are not just ‘useful’, but also powerful. Perhaps in future, such fieldwork as is necessary can be done through ‘citizen science’, a distributed model of untrained voluntary labour whose data are cleaned and analysed by ever-vigilant algorithms. The conservationist will need only to distribute their devices and wait.

The same efficiency is starting to pervade other aspects of our work. We use computers to write, and their search functions to find emails and papers we have misplaced. We use reference management software to remind us what we have read, and automated search algorithms to find literature, sort it and summarise its content. The structured protocols of systematic review are ideally suited to automation, and natural language algorithms are getting so good that we would no longer recognize their work if we (or our computers) were to read it.

I realize that such arguments simply parrot the prevailing angst of this digital age. Many jobs are done by computers that once needed people, and commentators debate whether this promises a delightful escape from drudgery or a fearful future of redundancy for all but those who own and manage the machines. One might ask, why should conservation be different? Our cause is so urgent that surely we need every edge we can get, and extreme efficiency and high speed is essential to our task. Let society in general sort out the issues of robots, jobs and redundancy.

So maybe I am too pessimistic. In 1967 Richard Brautigan wrote in his poem All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace ‘I like to think/(and the sooner the better)/of a cybernetic meadow/where mammals and computers/live together in mutually/programming harmony’.

Brautigan wrote in a different age, and the optimist might think today’s technologies could bring us somewhere near his utopian vision. For myself, I think perhaps I should unplug the interface and try to get outside a bit more often.


2 thoughts on “The Cyborg Conservationist

  1. Thanks for your thoughtful post! You might be interested in this from the blog I administer: The paper it discusses (Cantrell et al.) goes beyond remote sensing to automated intervention–in the interest of keeping areas “wild” in the sense of devoid of human presence . . . but I take it that you think more direct human experience is better? Even if this comes with the costs of physical human presence?

    • Thanks Zev, Yes, the Cantrell et al. paper was very thought-provoking – the idea of an autonomous wildness creator is fascinating, although deeply unattractive. humanity has already created the conditions for a lot of no-analogue ecologies that are (or could be) left alone. I guess I find the delight of nature’s ‘wildness’ is the capacity of life to turn up and dig in even in places we have done a good job of making dull and lifeless.

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